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Your epic fantasy list smells of elderberries

I like lists of books, even if it’s a list of books I’m not much interested in. And while I’ve read a number of epic fantasies – at one point I probably read them nearly as much as I read science fiction – I no longer have much time for the subgenre. A few years ago for one of my annual reading challenges, I tried to read a dozen I’d not tried before. I gave up six months in.

So when Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon all posted “50 essential epic fantasies” earlier this week, much as Jared, James Smythe and I did for science fiction a few months ago… I thought: ooh, book list. And then I read the lists and thought, oh…

I’ve actually read very little twenty-first century epic fantasy, and I believe I tried a grimdark fantasy novel once and didn’t think it very good. On the other hand, I’ve never been so desperate for reading material that I’ve had to read a Dragonlance book or anything by RA Salvatore. In other words, I don’t know much about epic fantasy; and when you look at the interminable chronicles that have been published in the past decade or so, then I know even less. But I do know a little bit. And I do have a few favourite epic fantasy novels (of varying degrees of epicity), few of which I saw mentioned on any of the lists presented by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts or Justin Landon. So here’s a small and humble list of my own. Which is in no way presented in opposition to their lists, or as a shot across anyone’s bows or anything. Consider it a small pendant list. Or something.

I couldn’t think of fifty titles, so here are the few titles I could think of. They’re not in the remotest bit essential, they’re merely fantasy novels that I think are really good. Some of them are a bit obscure. They will not give you a good idea of what the epic fantasy field is currently like, nor will they educate in the history of epic fantasy.

I have split the list into sections, depending on the books’ degree of epical fantasyness. This is a cheat, plain and simple, because it allows me to sneak in some books that are fantasy but not epic, and even a couple that are not even – kof kof – fantasy. In all other respects, I stuck to the rules – ie, one book or series per author, must have read it, etc.

The most epic
1 Lens of the World, King of the Dead, The Belly of the Wolf, RA MacAvoy (1990 – 1993)
Though only slim, the books of this trilogy probably cover more ground than many fat commercial fantasy series (GRMM and Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you). A dwarf of mysterious parentage is taught by a mysterious mentor, rises to power, loses his position, flees, travels around for a bit, and ends up ushering in a new age of science.
2 Isles of the Forsaken, Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011 – 2012)
The best fantasy I’ve read in recent years. After a war, the Innings turn their attention to their eponymous colonial possessions and try to take them in hand… leading to a war between reason and old beliefs. Brilliantly done.
3 A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Ursula K LeGuin (1968 – 1990)
I shouldn’t have to say anything about these books. I read the original trilogy as a kid and loved them. I came to Tehanu later, but I think it’s still an important part of the quartet.
4 The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004)
This is a superhero story couched in the language of epic fantasy, with a few nods in the general direction of science fiction. I’ve only read the first book of the trilogy, but The Castle Omnibus is on my wishlist.
5 Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R Delany (1979)
A trilogy/quartet of fantasy novels in which Delany in his inimitable way deconstructs the fantasy template. With much chewing of fingernails. I’ve only read the first but I do have Neveryóna and Flight from Nevèrÿon on the TBR (albeit as three paperbacks).
6 The Eternal Champion, Michael Moorcock (1965 – present)
There’s sure to be something in the many thousands of fantasy novels Moorcock banged out and then stitched together into his multiverse. Myself I’ve only read Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe and a handful of the Elric books, but I have Fantasy Masterwork editions of the others.
7 The Chosen, The Standing Dead, Ricardo Pinto (1999 – 2001)
An astonishingly original fantasy, in which a young man of noble birth who grew up in the provinces becomes an unwitting pawn in power-games in the imperial court. There is a third and final book, The Third God, but I’ve yet to read it (it is rather huge).
8 The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, Viriconium Nights, M John Harrison (1971 – 1984)
Anti-epic anti-fantasy, so of course it belongs on this list. These four books do for ennui what berserker rage did for the Vikings.

Perhaps not quite so epic
9 A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, The Hidden World, Paul Park (2005 – 2008)
A beautifully-written portal fantasy in which our world turns out to be the invention. A teenage girl is the hidden princess, but the fight to regain her family’s throne changes her world and herself in strange ways.
10 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, Alan Garner (1961 – 1965)
I read these as a kid, I think every kid should read them.
11 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1991)
An intelligent retelling of the Grail King myth with added Arthuriana. When I started reading it, I expected to find myself well out of my comfort zone, but I ended up loving it.
12 The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, Liar’s House, Lucius Shepard (1984 – 2010)
The Dragon Griaule is one of western fantasy’s more recent great creations. These four novellas are not the only stories Shepard has told about it, though they are the only ones I’ve read. Last year, Subterranean Press brought out a collection of the above four plus a further two novellas, The Dragon Griaule. It is already sold out. I have a copy.
13 The Warrior Who Carried Life, Geoff Ryman (1985)
A strange and poetic fantasy, which bucks the trend in being slim, beautifully-written and allusive.
14 Kirith Kirin, Jim Grimsley (2000)
An evil queen forces the rightful heir into hiding, where he falls in love with a humble villager. An epic fantasy that crashes together a variety of forms and results in something new and interesting. And in the appendices, a larger and much stranger world is revealed…

Just a little bit of epicness
15 Grendel, John Gardner (1971)
I suspect every epic fantasy writer sooner or later falls in love with their dark lord and is often sorely tempted to let them win anyway (I mean, come on, magical messiahs and grizzled warriors are boring). Grendel was the original dark lord (-ish) and this is his story.
16 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
If you go into the woods today, you’re bound to have a surprise… And it’s true, a bunch of animated teddy bears having a picnic would “surprise” anyone. But what you’ll find in this novel’s titular wood is so much more surprising. A genuine British fantasy classic.

Well, maybe epic’s not the best word
17 The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, John Crowley (1987 – 2000)
Epic is probably the last word you’d think of to describe the Aegypt tetralogy – I’ve yet to read Endless Things, the fourth book – but there is a certain epic grandeur in the way they rewrite history as a fantastical story, in both the present and Elizabethan Europe.
18 Rats and Gargoyles, The Architecture of Desire, Mary Gentle (1990 – 1991)
I remember the fuss when these books first appeared, and they deserved it. Hermetic science is by no means a D20-style magic system but, you know, that’s a good thing. Valentine White Crow and Balthazar Casaubon are one of fantasy’s great couples.
19 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
Bunnies! Oh, and I hate that stupid song. But I love the book.

It’s sf but it’s written in the language of epic fantasy, so there
20 The Sword of Rhiannon, The Secret Of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1942 – 1964)
Strictly speaking, it’s planetary romance, but all that sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from fantasy magic anyway, and there are ancient races and weird stuff that most sf commentators won’t even bother to explain away as sf. And the writing is a great many cuts above what was common for pulpish tales of this ilk. Don’t just read the two named novellas, read them all.
21 The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)
People have been arguing whether this is fantasy or science fiction for decades. Obviously, it’s science fiction and so shouldn’t have been in the Fantasy Masterwork series. But it is certainly presented like a fantasy story. Which is why it’s on this list.
22 The Steerswoman, The Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein (1989 – 1992)
The first book reads like fantasy for much of its length, but then you start to realise it’s actually science fiction. The second continues to use the language of fantasy but is quite plainly sf. Both are excellent. There are another two books in the series on my TBR, and a fifth promised some time soon.

Epic moving pictures
23 Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones (1975)
It’s a quest, it counts. It also probably contains more quotable lines than any other ten cult films.
24 Red Sonja, Richard Fleischer (1985)
It opens with a ghost telling Red Sonja that she has just been raped, her parents murdered, and their house burnt to the ground… as if she didn’t know already. Brigitte Nielsen plays the title character with all the expressiveness of a stick of wood, and the story gleefully plunders and mangles clichés from the entire field.
25 The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Peter Jackson (2001 – 2003)
Pretty much the dictionary definition of epic fantasy on the silver screen.
26 Krull, Peter Yates (1983)
Possibly the weirdest epic fantasy film of them all. It’s like someone watched a swashbuckler and thought that’s what fantasy films should be like – except with flying carthorses, one-eyed giants, a giant spider woman, an out-of-focus evil monster, a flying fortress, and a, er, boomerang. Plus every British actor in Equity at the time.

So that’s over two-dozen entries, encompassing 46+ books (where the “+” refers to the several million in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion multiverse), and half a dozen films (which may or may not actually be actually very good films). No doubt you will all now want to mock me for my choices…

(You should, of course, go and read the lists put together by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon, since they actually know quite a lot about epic fantasy and their lists are both educational and entertaining.)

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reading & watchings 6: the women-only month

As promised, during July I limited my reading to only books written by women. A dozen, in fact, which is about average for me; as are the subjects covered – science fiction, mainstream, crime, space, and autobiography.

The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004), was June’s book for my reading challenge, though I didn’t read it until July. I wrote about it here.

Hav, Jan Morris (2006), I’d been meaning to read for ages – ever since it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, in fact. But, well, I never got around to buying a copy. And that despite reading and very much enjoying Morris’ Fisher’s Face back in 2000. I found a copy of Hav on bookmooch.com last year, and picked it up this month to read as the book is actually an omnibus of two books, and the first was originally published in 1985 and so could be reviewed on SF Mistressworks. Which is what I did – see here. The more recent section, ‘Hav of the Myrmidons’, I found less successful. It takes place after the “Intervention”, in a state now booming under the control of a secretive council of Cathars. Quite what is driving the economy is never really revealed, though Morris suggests it may not be entirely legal. Morris visits old sights (almost all gone) and old friends (almost all changed). Progress has been good to Hav – it is now prosperous – but Morris mourns the old Hav, with its rich mélange of culture and history. Which does sort of make the piece read like a paean to nostalgia.

Bluebeard’s Egg , Margaret Atwood (1983), is a collection of short stories. Some I like more than others. The title story especially stood out. I also liked ‘Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother’ a great deal. One of my favourite mainstream short story writers is Helen Simpson, because her stories seem to capture real experiences. Her stories are about the quotidian, but they are written with intelligence and a lightness of touch which belies their content. Atwood in Bluebeard’s Egg , by contrast, seems more focused on the emotional landscapes in her stories and that, perversely, often makes them seem less real. True, the stories in this collection are chiefly focused on relationships and sexual politics, but even so, some of them felt more like plays than attempts to depict slices of life. There was a studiedness to the situations they describe, and I found that a little distancing. I have yet to make up my mind about Atwood’s fiction, though I’ve only read three of her books. The Handmaid’s Tale is superb, and I remember enjoying The Blind Assassin. I still have plenty more by her on the TBR (for a while, it seemed every local charity shop had one of her books), so we shall see how it goes…

Cloudcry, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1977), I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here. I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s writing for many years, and have collected all of her books.

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (2010), I bought because I’d heard good things about from several people. They were wrong. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Beirut Blues, Hanan al-Shaykh (1992), is al-Shaykh’s second novel. I thought her first, Women of Sand & Myrrh, very good indeed, but this one was, to be honest, a bit of a slog. It’s structured as a series of letters by a woman called Asmahan – to her childhood friend, to an ex-lover, to her mother, to Billie Holliday – in which she recounts incidents, and feelings, of life in war-torn Beirut. Some of the writing is lovely, some of the story is quite heart-breaking, and al-Shaykh is extremely good at getting across the realities of the life she describes. In that respect, Beirut Blues provides an excellent window on a place, its people and events that readers in the West probably know little about – and certainly very little about what it was actually like for those who suffered through those times. The format unfortunately does distance the reader somewhat and nothing has quite the impact it feels it ought to. Despite this, worth reading.

The Goda War, Jay D Blakeney (1989), I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here. The Goda War was, I think, the first book I read by Blakeney. I vaguely remember looking her up afterwards on The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, which reccommended her The Children of Anthi / Requiem for Anthi duology. I hunted down copies of those two books, and they are indeed good. The Goda War, unfortunately, isn’t. She wrote a fourth novel, The Omcri Matrix, which I will no doubt reread and review for SF Mistressworks sometime.

Desert Governess, Phyllis Ellis (2000), is a slim autobiographical book about the one year spent in Saudi by the writer. Originally a dancer/actress, Ellis turned to TEFL as a career after the death of her husband. She spent a year in Hail, in the centre of the Arabian peninsula, as English teacher – not really a governess – to the son and two daughters of HRH Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the youngest son of ibn Saud. Ellis seems eager to learn and understand Arab/Muslim culture, but equally unwilling to accept some of its elements – resulting in incidents which caused offense and could have been avoided. She is homesick for much of the time and, unsurprisingly, finds the life too restricting. To some extent, Desert Governess provides an interesting insight into the lives of Saudi princesses – particularly the sections set in Jeddah. The writing is mostly acceptable, and there are some mistakes in the transliteration of the Arabic (though they might have been typos). The book is a quick easy read, spoiled somewhat by Ellis’ reluctance to either accept or respect the culture in which she found herself.

Resurrection Code, Lyda Morehouse (2011), is actually a prequel to Morehouse’s AngeLINK quartet, which I’ve not read. I think Amazon recommended it to me when I purchased Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (see here), and it looked sort of similar so I bought it. It’s an interesting mix of cyberpunk and, er, angels, set in a post-apocalyptic Cairo. Odd, but in a good way. I plan to write about it here soon-ish. Meanwhile, I plan to hunt down copies of the original AngeLINK books: Archangel Protocol, Fallen Host, Messiah Node and Apocalypse Array..

City of Veils, Zoë Ferraris (2011), is her second crime novel set in Saudi, featuring the same two characters from her first, The Night of the Mi’raj: Nayir Sharqi, Palestinian desert guide, and Katya Hijazi, forensic scientist. I thought that first book interesting, though somewhat flawed – and I wasn’t convinced by some of the details. City of Veils is a much better book – perhaps because it has a larger cast and a much more satisfying central mystery (most of which proves to be a sub-plot, but never mind). A young woman’s body is found washed up on a Jeddah beach. She is later identified as Leila Nawar, a young film-maker who seemed determined to court controversy by filming subjects certain to offend the Saudi authorities. Meanwhile, Miriam Walker, an American, has returned to Jeddah after a month’s leave back home, and hours after she arrives home with her husband, he vanishes. Miriam doesn’t live on a camp, and can’t speak Arabic. Ferraris weaves the two incidents together into a mystery, one which drags in both Katya and Nayir. The characters seem better-drawn in this novel, but the plot does get wrapped a little two quickly. Still, I enjoyed it and I’ll read the next one when it’s published.

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (2010), was July’s book for this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.

Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge (2002), I found in a charity shop, though it’s a US paperback. I read and enjoyed Eskridge’s collection, Dangerous Space, back in 2008, and Solitaire is a novel that had been much praised. I’m surprised I didn’t read it earlier. Because it is very good indeed. In a nearish-future in which Earth has finally acceded to a single global government, Ren ‘Jackal’ Segura is a Hope – i.e., a child born in the first second of the EarthGov era, and trained from birth to be a credit, ambassador and example to the new age. She works for Ko, the planet’s only nation-corporation, and so is under more pressure to succeed than other hopes. On a visit to Hong Kong, she inadvertently causes the deaths of a group of people – an elevator fails in the city’s tallest tower, killing all those in it – including a Chinese senator, and Jackal’s circle of friends or “web”. When a terrorist group claims responsibility for the sabotage, Jackal is arrested and charged. Her Hope status is revoked and, so that her parents are not fired by Ko, she does not contest the charges. She is put in experimental Virtual Reality solitary confinement – eight months real-time, eight years VR elapsed time. Somehow, while in VR solitary, she discovers how to edit her environment, and creates a simulation of her home on Ko’s sovereign island. So when she finishes her sentence and comes out of “prison”, she is less damaged psychologically than others who had served sentences in the same fashion. The title of the book refers to a bar Jackal discovers some weeks after her release, which caters to “solos” – i.e., those who have served VR solitary confinement sentences. And is the events, and the people, there which lead to the story’s resolution. Solitaire is beautifully-written – this is not the prose you expect to find in a genre heartland novel. There are a few hand-wavey moments here and there, but they’re minor and in no way spoil the story. Eskridge’s knowledge of motivational studies comes across as extremely authoratitive (I believe that’s her day-job). Highly recommended.

Unfortunately, even after a month of women-only writers my reading is only 32% female and 68% male. So I need to do more. From now on, I’m going to try and alternate with each book I read, though I’m not going to be obsessive about it.

Oh, and no watchings this time, I’m afraid. I’m saving them up for the next readings & watchings post.